Blogpost: The Formative Years - Muzak

Posted by T • March 29, 2021

Posted by T • March 29, 2021

The Formative Years - Muzak 

Experimental, EDM, music that evokes a bodily reaction and noise music along with the underground cultures and aesthetics have always fascinated me – an interest that sparked curiosity as to what music can achieve beyond the realms of what is perceived and enjoyed when one actively listens.

Needless to say, when the ATF used meditative Tibetan chants in a bid to execute a psychological assault on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas to mess with the mind of David Koresh and his followers in the mid-90ies, I was intrigued.

After a stint of exploring how music is used by government agencies and police to sonically attack demonstrators or unwanted loiterers, an interest emerged in what other ways music is used to achieve desired subliminal effects, e.g. like the ubiquitous serenading of shoppers in retail stores with subtle background music – a style of music that to this day remains popular in Japan.

What eventually became a collective term to refer to background music at large, i.e. “muzak”, is a derivate from Muzak Holdings, an entity, whose name is a portmanteau of music and the made-up word “kodAK”, that since the 1950s has had its focus firmly set on creating the sounds that were have since become omnipresent in elevators and mercantile environments alike.

After a period of trial and error and a calibration of style, pace, and instrumentation, Muzak’s emissions were finetuned to the extent that they were deemed suitable to exert a stimulus to boost productivity, so it could be used in workplaces. In order to achieve their outcomes, Muzak eventually started to employ the services of dedicated orchestras musicians to further manipulate behaviours, which resulted in Muzak accumulating an impressive archive of original recordings.

With the advent of youth cultures spanning the decades from the 1960s onwards, background music started to loose its appeal as foreground music with original artist p[programming becoming prominent in public spaces – a development that eventually saw Muzak merge with Yesco, a company that licensed original recordings and a step which saw Muzak drop their stimulus progression program to evolve to creating their audio architecture program, along with offering the management of performance royalties, targeting specific audiences with pre-fabricated algorithm based playlists.

While Muzak eventually went bankrupt, its legacy and objectives still loom large, with entities like Mood Media following in its footsteps to focus on on-hold messaging and video programming.

While the concept of muzak might sound antiquated, the piping in of soothingly bland music in public spaces has never ceased and no matter if I frequent a restaurant or visit a bank, it has become an interesting activity to consciously listen to what non-threatening music is being played, question what it means to achieve and assess if it yields any results.

T • March 29, 2021

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